White House Office of Public Engagement

Since 1974, the White House has had an Office of Public Liaison. On May 11, it was renamed the Office of Public Engagement. The President said, “This office will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country, through meetings and conversations with groups and individuals held in Washington and across the country.” The front page of the website quotes the president: “Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.”

This is an exciting development. All my work is premised on the belief that open-ended public discussions yield valuable and morally legitimate results that cannot be predicted in advance. I also believe that our most serious challenges require public work and that we are burdened by poor relationships between citizens and government and among citizens. So it will be very valuable to have diverse, constructive, open-ended conversations that involve the American people and the executive branch.

We know today how to organize such discussions. Practical tools and insights come from groups like AmericaSpeaks, the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda, and Everyday Democracy; from the more flexible and pragmatic community organizing groups; from local governments that have engaged their own citizens effectively; from certain successful projects in federal agencies like EPA; from other countries, like Brazil and Uganda; and from the Obama Campaign’s online tools.

So I salute this development. I do, however, see two risk that we outside the Administration should monitor and help with. First, there is the risk that an office named with the phrase “public engagement” could actually turn into a PR and persuasion office of the administration. That would be a blow, because it would cheapen an important concept. The Administration has a right to sell its proposals; but that is not “engagement.”

Second, I fear a tendency to reduce “engagement” to two-way communication. The President talked about “the difficult work of changing this country.” But the next sentence in the OPE press release glossed his comment thus:

    OPE will help build relationships with Americans by increasing their meaningful engagement with the federal government. Serving as the front door to the White House, OPE will allow ordinary Americans to offer their stories and ideas regarding issues that concern them and share their views on important topics such as health care, energy and education.

I am skeptical that people (including me) are motivated to discuss issues–or are adequately informed about issues–if their only opportunity is to “offer stories” and “share views.” We also need concrete opportunities to work on projects. Work is motivating and educating. Today, it may involve typing or talking rather than digging or cleaning, but it needs to feel like a direct contribution. That is why I would tie the public engagement function of the White House to the tangible work that Americans are doing with stimulus funds.